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Last day in Beijing 

May 6, 2017

It’s been a blast! 

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Remembering China # 5: Shanghai

June 27, 2013

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Shanghai. Wonderful, amazing Shanghai. I truly love this city, and when I think about China, it’s here that I miss the most. I would give anything to go back there, to live and work.

Shanghai is a city that’s rapidly changing – and not necessarily for the better. This formerly European concession was unlike any other place that I experienced in China. Of the 10 or so cities that I visited, Shanghai had the most distinctive personality.

The thing that makes Shanghai so special, is the old vs new. Beyond the amazing skyline, full of some of the most amazing buildings you’ll ever see, lies a facade of 18th century style European buildings that are truly beautiful. As I walked along a street that ran behind the tourist infested Bund, when I squinted my eyes and the people became just people, and not Chinese, I could have easily been in Melbourne. At night, when the Bund is lit up to the nines, and the old style buildings are glowing yellow with the snapping Chinese flags above each of them, it truly is an amazing sight. Across the river, the Pudong is also aglow, with the famous Pearl tower with its distinctive shape taking centre stage.

But what I loved most about shanghai was its feel. When you really get in there among the twisting roads and lane ways, it’s an amazing place. From the French concession, with its twisted trees stumps before old colonial style buildings, to the older streets lined with alleyways that could easily have been movie sets. There’s power lines and washing hanging above dusty bicycles and old Chinese characters painted on the walls. It’s simply intoxicating.

But unfortunately much of the old Chinese charm is also disappearing. Great blocks of old Chinese houses are being torn down in favour of skyrises. It was among these districts where you would find those amazing laneways, and snapshots of what the older city would have been like. The reality unfortunately is that while these places are visually amazing, the living conditions inside them are the opposite. Many old Shanghai citizens have been relocated out of the central city district into the suburbs, and relocated into high rise apartments.

But i have found that among people who have been to Shanghai, it is a polarising place. Some people love it, others, not so much. I think that it can come down to how you view the city, and what efforts you make to really get in among it. I had the luxury or visiting it on a quite regular basis. Compared to Wuxi, Shanghai was the closest ‘big’ city (they’re all big in China, really), and had the highest prospect of finding foreign goods such as English language novels and various other products. But beyond that, I also had a chance to walk around it like a local – with no agenda, and i think that made the difference. From simple tasks to just going in search of good coffee (which rocked in the French district incidentally) to finding a decent hairdressor, to enjoying watching all the locals do their tai chi and folk dancing in one of the many parks.
I hope to return to China in 2014, and it’s Shanghai that I am most excited to return to, and this time photograph with a proper SLR.

Remembering China # 1: Where it all began

May 18, 2013

I recently entered the World Nomad’s 2013 travel writing scholarship contest, and while I didn’t win – or hell, I didn’t even get shortlisted, god how I wanted to. The prize this year was 2 weeks in Beijing under the mentorship of various travel writers in what would have been something of a dream come true experience. Of course, actually winning a heavily subjective competition like this one is comparable to your chances of winning the lotto – I mean, who the hell really knows what they’re looking for year to year. Anyhow, I didn’t win, and I have moved on – I promise!

While I was spending time on the competition, it had me reminiscing again of my own time spent in China. I went through my old photos, many of which I hadn’t looked at for many years now, and have decided to pull a few out and write about them. While living in China – stupidly – I didn’t recognize the need to have a really good camera, and so while many of our shots reflect our experience, I am still kicking myself today that I didn’t take over a proper digital SLR – the night shots we missed out on – gah!

This first shot is particularly average, but it’s also very meaningful for me. It was one of a handful of shots we took just after arriving, while heading back to the school in a minivan. This shot shows the real China – a China that we did not expect. Deep down we knew that it would be a heavily industrialized, very smoggy environment, but we also were still trying to fool ourselves that we would in fact be driven through bamboo forests, past teahouses and pagodas until at our final destination we were served delicious steaming dumplings by none other than a panda.

The reality? This photo:

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It was winter and just beyond some unseasonably heavy snowfalls. It does not always snow in Wuxi, but this year it had. In fact in 2008, China experienced such heavy snowfalls that it caused chaos across the country – made all the worse by the fact that half the population was on the move for Chinese New Year. It bordered on disaster.

Anyhow, for us newbies to the country, it meant that the country was freezing cold, both foggy and smoggy, and universally brown. All the foliage was flattened and brown. The grass – brown. The trees – not that there were any real trees – more shrubs, were partially bare and all brown.

It was grey and desolate and a depressing landscape. It was also eye-opening in its sheer size. Everywhere we looked were bamboo scaffold clad buildings such as in the image. On the horizon, random high-rise apartments and factories.

As we travelled across this landscape, through lines of identical blue trucks and flat-bed vehicles laden with yellow helmeted workers, we began to question if we had made a mistake coming here.

Back from Bali

March 23, 2013
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Nusa Dua beach at 6am with the tide out.

I have just returned from 10 days in Bali and it is most definitely not the reason why I haven’t been updating this blog much – that’s just sheer laziness! There have been so many interesting Chinese related news articles that I have been meaning to write about, alas!

I would prefer to say that I had just returned from Indonesia, it sounds so much more exotic than Bali. Bali is, like my brother-in-law put it, “the Gold Coast with passports,” and man, is that the truth. For the non-Australian’s, the Gold Coast is long section of beach just south of Brisbane (in the State of Queensland). It is one of Australia’s most popular holiday destinations for Australians – kind of where you go to when you want nothing more than to drink and lie on a beach – two very popular Australian pasttimes – particularly for the typical yobbo. The name Gold Coast is taken from the fact the sand is golden yellow – it’s also known as Surfers Paradise for its waves.

Bali is like taking the above description and mixing it with South East Asia. It’s hot, there’s nice beaches, plenty of drinking, and of course, plenty of Australians. Initially we were looking at going to the Philippines, and then Malaysia, and we thought, we simply want a cheap, hot destination for a pool holiday, and well, Bali is close, so decided to check it out. We figured Bali would be cheaper than the other two options.

It is definitely close, with a direct flight from Melbourne clocking in around the 5 hours 20 minute mark. And it was definitely HOT, with one Balinese local describing the island as having two temperatures: hot and hotter. But it was not cheap. In fact, unless you’re eating all meals in the outside restaurants, and the same with the drinks, you’re looking at very close to Australian prices (ie: expensive).

Of course, this holds true for most countries I have visited. If you eat in your hotel, you’re going to pay for it, but I can say for a fact, Thailand was a lot cheaper than Bali in this regard. In addition, you don’t always want to have to go into the streets for your lunches and dinners. Sometimes it’s nice just to stay by the pool all day, ordering food to you, ordering cocktails and the like. It’s a pool holiday afterall!

We stayed in three different places. First up was the Laguna resort in Nusa Dua. Second was the Seminyak Resort and Spa in Seminyak, and finally we splurged a bit and stayed for two nights at the Anantara, also in Seminyak.

The Laguna was lovely, if not lacking a bit of character. It was one of those resorts designed to be all inclusive, in that once there, you don’t need to leave. This is great if you’re European (which most of the guests were incidentally), but if you want to get out and explore a bit, not so good. There were some shops nearby, and a largish shopping centre named Bali Connection (which I swear was just 5 shops repeated 50 times over), but overall, it was just lacking something, and it was very expensive. Cocktails were $16.00 AUD a pop, and the mojitos were mediocre at best, even at this premium price. The 5 dollar shopping centre mojitos were far tastier.

The beach at Nusa Dua was quiet as there was a coral reef there. Waves would break quite a distance from shore, until high tide when the main beach became quite lovely for swimming. In the distance there was a terrific view of one of Bali’s volcanos.

Seminyak was a very different experience. This bustling area is one of Bali’s new tourism growth spots, with resorts and villas everywhere. When standing on the beach, I counted no less than 7 large cranes behind the palm tree horizon – new resorts were sprouting up everwhere. Across the water, an almost constant stream of planes were taking off and landing – Bali thrives off its tourism.

The Seminyak Resort and Spa was a nice hotel, located right on the beach, with an amazing infinity pool set right above the sand. The beach here was the polar opposite of Nusa Dua, with some seriously large waves crashing against the shore. The sand was volcanic grey and home to a surprisingly number of articles of rubbish. While it was nice bobbing in the ridiculously warm Indian Ocean, the vibe is somewhat killed when you’re constantly picking your way in between chip packets and pieces of plastic.

The Seminyak Resort and Spa had a really nice room, and the grounds were decent enough, but the lack of a proper bar area killed it a bit. It had one of the fabled swim up pool bars – but that was it. There was nowhere to sit around this bar, and by the time it was happy hour (5-7pm), the water was in shade and actually kind of cold. Thailand wins on the bar front – with both places we staying having awesome areas to just hang out, watch the sun go down and sup cocktails. All three places in Bali failed in this regard.

The Seminyak also has this chapel located bang in the middle of its ocean front property. This place could have made an excellent restaurant, bar or effectively anything else – but no, it was just a chapel. Complete waste of space in my opinion.

The final place, the Anantara was what I thought would be the best of the three, but was merely just as good. This is classed as a boutique resort (aka small), occupying a small patch of ground, further down the beach from the Seminyak. The Anantara did have a much better vibe to it however. The main draw here are the jacuzzi’s set into the balcony, which despite taking like 40 minutes to fill, were kind of cool I have to admit. Our first night here was a disaster, with some works in the hotel keeping up awake literally all night – and on complaining the next day, we were moved to a higher level, which thankfully, was quiet.

While each hotel was nice, the common trend was they lacked character – something the Thai hotels had in spades. The one thing that bound them all together however, was the staff – the Balinese (or Indonesians, period) were just like the Thai’s – friendly, helpful and always an absolute pleasure to deal with. While Bali is not the kind of place I could see myself returning to time and time again, if i had to, the Balinese people themselves would be a big part of this.

Overall – I liked Bali. I didn’t love it, but I liked it. As usual, I found it interesting to see the differences between the local culture/people compared to the other parts of Asia that I am familiar with. I love Asia, and being back there was an absolute treat. Once more, I have returned home with pangs of wanting to move back there. And once more, upon returning home, drinking water from the tap feels like wrongtown.

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Sunset on Seminyak beach

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The Seminyak Resort and Spa infinity pool

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Hi!

Behold, pumplings!

November 20, 2012

Busy! That’s this week’s excuse! Four times a year I’m hit with a pretty hefty publication deadline, and yes you guessed it, this is one of those times. As I have been completing my course programming for Summer 2013, I have also been completing my Cert IV in Training & Assessment, while continuing to study Mandarin.

Last night marked my final Chinese class of the year, so the class hit Chinatown to a place called the Red Emperor and got our dumplings on. Funnily enough, since moving into the city, I have felt a bit disconnected. I haven’t had a regular dumpling haunt and it’s phased me a little bit. We’ve tried a number, including an awesome Japanese cafe’ named Yoyogi on Swanston Street, but hey, I miss Ramen King!

I am also fairly certain that the Red Emperor is where we had a farewell dinner with friends and family back before we moved to China. It’s been a few years now, and my perception of Chinese restaurants has changed somewhat. Back then it would have been oooer ahhh a Chinese restaurant in the city! Prestigious! These days it’s just eh, another cheap eatery with passable dumplings. That’s not to say the food there wasn’t good, it was quite hao chi actually.

I ordered a few of our regular dishes, trying to covert my classmates to the cucumber (+soy/garlic/chilli) salad that Courtney and I always order, and the shredded Sichuan style potato dish (+vinegar/chilli etc) which were both hits. Along with a range of dumplings I also came across a dish I don’t believe I had ever eaten before – but it was one of those dishes that has you saying, how the HELL did I not know about these?

These were pumpkin cakes – or pumpkin dumplings – hell, I don’t know what they’re called. One guy jokingly said they were called Pump Dumps – while his girlfriend called them Pumplings! PUMPLINGS! HAHA I freakin’ love it!

Anyhow, I am not normally a fan of pumpkin, but these PUMPLINGS are bloody delicious! They’re like small, deep fried cakes of puree’ pumpkin, and they’re sweet. They’re actually a dessert, so you wouldn’t go dipping them in your soy or chilli oil or what not. But god, are they delicious. I only managed to get two of them in total, but I swear, had the others not been there, I would have destroyed the entire plate. You can be assured I will be ordering them on a very regular basis.

In other news, I am thoroughly loving living in the city. It is without doubt one of the best decisions we have ever made. But more on that later 🙂

MMmmmm pumplings!

From the motherland

May 9, 2012

Actually the title is a lie, I write this while in the beautiful surrounds of Positano. Before I let the Springtime weather completely take me, I wanted to write a few more words about old blighty, good ol London.

Previously all mentions of London had included the words cold and dreary. While that definitely remains true, I am happy to say that I found the good bits behind the icy exterior.

England to me was always a depressing place that I had little interest in visiting. Much of my opinion had come from the glimpses shown on various tv programs. Usually it showed drab people in rundown looking locations surrounded by grey grey and more grey. Usually there was some drizzle there to boot.

Of course the tv can never really illustrate what a place is really like, and anyone who feels it can is clearly deluded. No as with anything, the only way to experience it is to actually go there.

Completely ignoring the shitty weather, I was first surprised by just how green London was. No not the rolling green hills just beyond the city limits; with their wide yellow belts of rapeseed, but the sheer number of public parks or greens as they call them. They were everywhere and in most cases beautifully well kept little plots of nature. So many of these were markedly statues of some old notable that further added to their interest.

And here I will mention squirrels. Why can’t we have these in Australia? Someone needs to sneak some past customs (yeah good luck with Nazi Germany..er Aussie customs) and start a breeding program. I love these little guys! I probably stood out like tourist scum from half a mile away, my neck always craned back scanning the trees for cuteness. I have a feeling our beefy brush tail possums might eat them for breakfast however.

In many ways London reminded me of a very big Melbourne, though I do have to say I think we peg the motherland in the food and coffee departments. I loved the old buildings, the plinthed statues, the layers of history that were simply everywhere. The entire place was alive with movement and activity and like Melbourne, so utterly multi-cultural.

I was also floored by the cab drivers. These guys were the most polite, friendly and well spoken people I have encountered in a very long time. They were genuinely concerned about their customer, querying in detail our destination so they could most effectively deliver us there. They would offer random facts and information, all with sweet east London accents. Australian taxi drivers could learns few things here. One guy told us the story how his school had sung in Pink Floyds The Wall (showing us the school as we drive past- Islington Green it was called back then) and how he was absolutely gutted as they used the grade 3 students while he was in grade 4.

All in all i came away from London feeling like I had experienced the essence of what makes it one of the worlds great cities. Not only was it nice to see where my brother (and several great friends) have lived and worked for many years, but I have cleared up that tv instilled inspiring that London is a dreary hole – it so isn’t. Individually, many of the housing buildings can be seen that way, I do understand how it looked that way. Taking into account the entire picture however paints an entirely different picture.

I was also blown away by just how effective the bus system was. For tourists I can’t recommend enough cruising around on the top level of a double decker. The way that these buses allowed us to view the city really surprised me.

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Hygge in Copenhagen

May 5, 2012

Denmark has come and gone and I find myself in London. It has been great to see my brother and his girlfriend and explore one of the worlds great cities, but the dominating feeling here is of being cold. Maybe it’s due to not being acclimatized, or maybe I’m just being a panzy but man, it’s so damned cold! Jumping back across the North Sea, I really miss Copenhagen. It surprises me that England can be so dreary in the weather department while just a short distance away, Denmark is enjoying clear blue skies and sunshine.

Copenhagen was just such a surprisingly nice place to spend some time. The Danish notion of ‘Hygge’ – spending quality time with friends and just relaxing, permeated the entire city. From the food to the beautiful old lanes and streets, Copenhagen was an amazing introduction to Europe for a first timer. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring London yesterday, but the weather had me more focused on my own discomfort(again, panzy!) rather than my surroundings. Perhaps we just got lucky in Denmark, but regardless, the beautiful weather allowed us to really enjoy the experience.

I made every effort to sample as much of Denmark as was possible within a mere few days. From devouring delicious pickle covered hotdogs to ploughing into Godzilla sized traditional Danish pork sandwiches. Each day we’d set off from our hotel which was nestled in the dodgy red light district and hit the cobblestones. We capped off our trip with a beer in the fading sunlight in one of the many little squares.

As we wandered around, it still spun me out to see different nationalities speaking European languages. I’d see Asians and Indians walking around speaking Danish and it’s always interesting to hear how their entire voice changes depending on their native tongue. For now it’s off into the English countryside in the dreary grey. I’m sure it will be interesting but my mind is still lingering on Denmark or moreso, Monday and Italy.

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Hello from Denmark

May 2, 2012

Well hello from Denmark and what is the first time I’ve ever written to a blog from a mobile phone. If there’s some kooky words mixed in there well we can thank Mr IPhone!

This is my first time to Europe and so far it’s been a really interesting experience. We are staying in Copenhagen and have really gotten lucky with the weather. Despite each day only being around 16(what we’d consider cold in Melbourne), the sun has been out and I even got sunburnt yesterday.

The thing that’s really stood out to me so far is how different it feels to be in the language minority where everyone is white. The European languages really stand out to me. They seem loud, sometimes abrasive and just really hard to ignore. I wonder if it’s because I am so familiar with both Chinese and japanese that neither of these languages seem so loud to me.

One thing is for sure, I do enjoy being in the language minority. Despite the fact that most Europeans speak English, it’s nice once more not having to listen to what people are saying.

It’s also nice to be on holiday with no concrete agenda. It has taken several days to get passed the tiredness of the initial travel. Leaving Melbourne at 2pm to arrive in Bangkok in the evening then take off again at 2am. We were traveling for over 24 hours and seriously lacking in the sleep department. What I wouldn’t give for the Asian ability to sleep upside down.

From an Asian perspective it seems that the Chinese world takeover tour hasn’t yet penetrated Skandinavia. It’s seriously disappointing not having my beloved cheap Chinese massage shops on every corner – but alas, I am sure I will survive. I actually had a Thai massage in Bangkok during the stopover and while it was good, man the sore ribs on the Copenhagen leg weren’t really something I would recommend. Anyhow enough unedited babble, there’s a beer to consume in the land of the Nordic drinkers.

Chinese couple sells kids to fund gaming addiction…

July 29, 2011

So I was reading an article the other day where purportedly a young Chinese couple has sold their three children in order to fund their online gaming addiction. Supposedly, the couple – both under 21, sold their first son for a mere 3,000 RMB, then the next daughter for 30,000 RMB, and finally another son for another 30,000 RMB.

I don’t know about you, but the story to me sounds like absolute crap. Actually, it reminds me of the quality of article which used to show up regularly (ok the only type of article) in the English newspaper China Daily.

For one, in a predominantly single child orientated country (unless you’re wealthy enough to pay for multiples), the chance of an unmarried couple, under 21, having not 1, not 2, but 3 kids, just stinks of bs. And top of that, the whole selling routine, well yeah.

China is quickly becoming one of those countries where modern myths are starting to evolve. I suspect that the greater world populace has actually little to no idea what life is like in China, and so it is let the creativity begin!
On the other hand however, having lived there myself, I also have to admit that it is a place where the above story could very well happen also. Just when you think you’ve seen it all in China, you see something else again…and again…and again…and again. In fact I think it was these laughably random occurrences which happened on a daily basis which have me so missing the place.

In the name of Art

April 16, 2010

As part of the 5th Lianzhou International Photo Festival which opened last weekend in Lianzhou, Guangdong province, artist and TV presenter Ou Zhihang has toured the country, photographing himself performing naked, ‘Ou-style push-ups’ before various landmarks.

“I love my country, I also love my body. I contrast my tiny body with the ‘miracle of the world’ through the popular exercise – push-up.”

 

I have to admit, I am very fond of the often bizarre interpretations of art which come out of China, including the work of Liu Bolin, who paints his entire body to blend in to his surroundings – appearing almost transparent.

Beijing has an entire district named 798 dedicated to art, and is a must-see destination for anyone with even an inkling of interest in the creative world.

Outside the Potala Palace

The CCTV building - remember my article 'the towering inferno?' Note the burnt out husk on the left..that's it 🙂

The Forbidden City - I bet the guards would have been all over him like seagulls had they spotted him.

And of course no naked tour would be complete without visiting the Bird's Nest


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